Bennie Maupin has contributed a lot to jazz since he began to work with Miles Davis as a teenager in the 1950s, but he has recorded precious little under his own name. It is a matter of quality over quantity. Early Reflections is just his sixth album as a leader, and it is a rare gem. For this date, the reedsman recruited a rhythm section from Poland (plus a vocalist for two tunes) and recorded in Warsaw. Patient and emotive, it is destined to be one of the great releases of 2008.
Maupin will forever be known for his brooding clarinet on Davis’ Bitches Brew, but his own masterful debut as a bandleader, 1974’s The Jewel in the Lotus, is his piece de resistance. Thirty-four years later, he has totally reworked its beautiful title track. He blows nostalgically on the soprano sax as his sidemen—pianist Michal Tokaj, bassist Michal Baranski, and drummer Lukasz Zyta—churn the rhythm. The song is segmented to a degree; it builds and releases tension, takes a breather and begins anew with a fresh solo. Maupin’s horn flutters, wails and cries out for joy. This is jazz with a lot of thought and a lot of feeling.
At 77 minutes, the disc never grows tiresome, despite its meditative, contemplative nature. “Escondido,” a soft boss nova, is a stunning exercise in openness and simplicity, particularly when Maupin duets in unison with the bass at the end. It is one of the most gorgeous bossas on record. The leader switches to alto flute, perhaps the saddest of instruments, for the heartbreaking “Tears,” and even throws a bit of a funk beat into “Prophet’s Motifs.” The finale, “Spirits of the Tatras,” has Maupin in a melancholy mood once more, but he sounds at peace. The song, the album, feels like a celebration of life on planet Earth.